Randall Ross and Molly McCombs sell rare and unusual Design books via their modernism101.com website.
What is modernism101, and what are its beginnings?
We needed a catchy name that helped identify our curative philosophy. Molly and I try to serve as gatekeepers for clients interested in Design history. We specialize in Art, Architecture, and Industrial, Interior and Graphic Design, so a Venn diagram of these five areas would show an overlap that defines our customer base.
When or how did you decide to turn this hobby into a business?
I’ve always been a collector: gum cards, comics, records, books; and all of these collections were Design-oriented to a certain extent. Eventually most collectors try their hand at dealing in order to support their habits. My timeframe for doing this coincided with the development of the World Wide Web. The Internet made location almost irrelevant, so a couple of design fanatics in Austin, Texas were able to reach an international audience.
For the uninformed: What is modernism, and how does it differ from other art movements? Is it similar to post-modernism or minimalism?
I think the Bauhaus-trained architect Marcel Breuer summed it up best: “Modernism is not a style, it is an attitude.” The Modernists of the early 20th century broke away from the entrenched traditions of the 19th century in all of the plastic arts: painting, drawing, sculpture, and architecture. They were responding to the unspeakable horrors of WWI and “the crime of ornament,” as described by Viennese architect Adolf Loos. Modernism was a response to the excesses of the past, but history has a funny way of coming around full circle. The Post-Modernists responded to the austerity of classic Modernism by injecting vernacular references into their work. Minimalism was a more intellectually-based response, where the idea achieved supremacy over aesthetic or technique.
What is the rarest piece of work that you have come upon?
We specialize in graphic design history, an area that has not yet been fully explored. As such, we consistently turn up items that have never been categorized or seen in the marketplace. It’s exciting, like an archaeologist finding a fossilized two-headed trilobyte.
What are some of the most unusual places that you have shipped books?
We have shipped books to every continent except for Antarctica.
What books/artists/designers/architects are the best “jumping off point” for exploring the world of modern design?
There is a constant stream of newly published material entering the marketplace, shining spotlights on dark and forgotten creative corners of the 20th century. We are partial to books published by the Museum of Modern Art for the depth of their scholarship and superior production values.
Living in a mid-century modern house in Shreveport, is the love for it purely aesthetic or do you have a sense of new perspective or creative energy?
We love the rich architectural heritage of Caddo Parish, and will not rest until Shreveport is universally recognized as the “Design Capital of the Ark-La-Tex!” We were incredibly fortunate to find our dream house here. We find great solace and inspiration in our house, and realize we are very fortunate to live and work in such a stimulating environment.
What are a few of your favorite modernist designers/artists/architects?
Anything produced at the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1928 gets my automatic stamp of approval. My life was forever changed after touring the Walter Gropius House in Lincoln, Mass. years ago. Gropius founded the Bauhaus in 1919 and came to the United States to run the Graduate School of Design at Harvard. America was never the same after that. Standing on the Gropius House sun deck, all of my various interests, all of those loose strands of my life — art, architecture, books — started to intertwine and make sense.
After exposure to the Gropius House I grabbed onto the Bauhaus founding principle — “Art and Industry, a new unity” — and starting selling Design books on the internet. After 15 years of working as a graphic designer, my life improved dramatically once I started selling a product instead of a service.
I have a lot of respect for Alfred Hamilton Barr, Jr. Not because of his role as the first director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Not because he instituted aggressive advertising campaigns for MoMA, insisting that exhibition catalogs be accessible both financially and intellectually to the public. Not because he coined the term “international style” to describe the tectonic shifts occurring in architecture in the late 1920s. Not because he was one of the earliest (and greatest) proponents of modern art for the American public. Not because his perspective of modern art extended beyond painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts to embrace architecture, industrial design, theater, movies, and even literature and music.
The reason I have so much respect for Alfred Hamilton Barr, Jr. is that he synthesized his wide-ranging and inclusive view of the modern movement and gave it physical form as a diagram — a flow chart (or family tree) of the Modern Art Movement — on the dust jacket cover of CUBISM AND ABSTRACT ART. Anybody with any insight into the science of Information Design would certainly recognize Barr’s diagram as a true classic of the genre.
According to the MoMA website, Barr reworked the chart a number of times — he never considered it definitive. The Dust jacket artwork for CUBISM AND ABSTRACT ART is definitive. Barr’s diagram was both high- and low-brow ten years before Kirk Varnedoe was even born. With one idiosyncratic diagram, Barr projected his theories of the origins of modern art to his audience in an entirely new way. Isn’t that the essence of modernism?
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